You are here

Measures and Standards in Hellenistic and Roman Sicily

D. Alex Walthall

Cicilia ae piu salme,” complained the fifteenth-century merchant, Giovanni da Uzzano, reflecting on the multiplicity of capacity measures one routinely encountered in Sicily, measures that all shared the name salma. Such variation in “standard” units of measure was not uncommon in Medieval and Early Modern Sicily, where an island-wide standard for measuring grain, for instance, remained an elusive goal until the early nineteenth century. Adherence to local and feudal standards was, in fact, the norm until 1809 when the Bourbon king Ferdinand III, compelled by a need to raise taxes, dispatched technicians to Sicily with the task of enforcing metric units across the island. For both merchants and monarchs, the diversity of metrological units stifled vital aspects of their respective livelihoods­—trade and taxation.

Of course, the desire to mobilize the island’s agricultural resources through taxes and trade has a long history on Sicily and with it efforts to enforce common units of measure­ment. This paper addresses some such earlier efforts to achieve metrological unification across parts or the whole of Sicily, focusing on two major political transformations of the Hellenistic period, namely, the consolidation of eastern Sicily under the authority of the Syracusan monarch Hieron II and the incorporation of the island within Rome’s growing administrative empire. For both Hieron and the Romans, Sicily’s renowned agricultural fertility offered a source of great wealth. One need only look to Cicero’s account of the lex Hieronica to grasp the centrality of the agricultural tithe within the political administration of the island. It follows that, for both Hieron and the Romans, a unified metrological system was desirable for the efficient assessment and collection of agrarian taxes. Yet, while sovereign authorities endorsed the official standards of the state, we have little by way of surviving documentary or literary evidence to account for how this process was carried out under Hieronian or Roman authority. Judging from later Medieval and Early Modern sources, metrological standardization was not a particularly simple or organic operation, especially in the highly segmented political and geographic landscape of Sicily.

Here, archaeological evidence can help to further our understanding of the role ancient states played in the endorsement and adoption of metrological standards. The appearance of uniform weights and measures at different sites across a broad geographic area, for instance, may be used to track the spread of metrological standards endorsed (and enforced) by state authorities. In this light, the many hundreds of weight and volume measures recovered in the course of the American excavations at the central Sicilian city of Morgantina offer rich testimony to the adoption, dissemination, and use of standard measures in the Hellenistic and Roman Republican periods. In this paper, I present a selection of unpublished weights and measures from ancient Morgantina, which appear to document both the swift adoption of state-sponsored standards in eastern Sicily during the reign of Hieron II and their gradual replacement by Roman standards of measure throughout the first two centuries of Roman rule. At the same time, the Morgantina material reveals the coexistence of weights and measures belonging to different standards at a single location, a fact which may shed light on the limits of state-sponsored standardization in antiquity.

Session/Panel Title

Standardization and the State

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy